California Living Wills Laws and The Natural Death Act

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Quite often, California is the state that leads the nation in innovative policies, and it certainly led the way with the enactment of the Natural Death Act. This law allows individuals to use a variety of legal tools to make decisions about their end-of-life health care while they are still mentally competent.

California Natural Death Act

The California legislature passed the Natural Death Act in 1976, and it became effective in 1977. This law was revolutionary at the time. It allowed people to write out legal documents to control their health care in the future, at the time when they are no longer competent to make those decisions. The primary tool is the California advance health care directive.

Although California was the first state to enact this type of law, other states soon followed. Today, all states have these laws, termed the Natural Death Act, Death with Dignity Act or Living Will Act.

Power of Attorney in a California Health Care Directive

California advance health care directives have several sections. In the first section, the person names his or her power of attorney. Remember that a living will is written when the person making the document is mentally competent, but it goes into effect when he is no longer competent.

The individual names a trusted friend, family member or professional person as his health care agent, or power of attorney, to be the person who will direct his medical care at such time that he cannot do it himself. It's wise to appoint an alternative health care agent in case something happens to the original choice.

Living Will vs. Regular Will

The second part of the California health care directive is called a living will, a legal document that is not like a regular will. A regular will is the legal document that an individual prepares to specify who she wishes to inherit her property when she dies. These types of wills take effect at the time of the person's death.

California living wills set out the individual's health care instructions. These documents take effect when the person becomes incapacitated or legally incompetent to make his or her own health care decisions.

California Living Will and Following Sections

In the living will, the person can include any directions for the types and extent of medical treatment that he wants to receive at the end of his life. He can set out his choice as to whether he wishes doctors to prolong his life if, even with treatment, he would probably not be likely to regain a reasonable quality of life. He can also include other instructions in this section, such as decisions about the delivery of food intravenously.

If the person making the will does not include any health care instructions, the person named as his power of attorney has unlimited power to make health care decisions for him.

The next two sections of the advanced health care directive form are discretionary. One section allows a person to specify if he wants to be an organ donor. The final section allows him to name his preferred primary care doctor.

Making a California Health Care Directive

It's not a difficult process for a California resident to draw up an advanced health care directive. While an attorney will be glad to help, an individual can probably do just fine on her own. A blank form is available on the California Attorney General's website, termed the “Advance Health Directive form.” The individual can simply fill it out, have it witnessed correctly, and use it.

As the online form notes, the person's signature on the form must be witnessed by two adult witnesses who also sign the document. Otherwise, it is not legally binding. At least one of the witnesses must be someone who is not named as a beneficiary in her will and does not stand to benefit monetarily from her death.

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.